Academic journal article Kritika

Andrei Ershov and the Soviet Information Age

Academic journal article Kritika

Andrei Ershov and the Soviet Information Age

Article excerpt

I'm not original. My ideal is the creative mind, or, in terms of mottoes: IBM's "Think" and the poetic "never a day without a line." --A. P. Ershov

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Soviet Union was suddenly confronted with two major, imminent transformations. The first was the restructuring and liberalization of Soviet society under the banner of glasnost' and free market reform, the subject of the most influential studies of the late Soviet era, which depict the break of the early perestroika years primarily in ideological or personal terms. (1) The second, in a longer timeframe, was the arrival of the post-Fordist information economy, heralded in part by the worldwide explosion in personal computing over the course of the decade. Although it has received little attention, the plan to modernize and retool the Soviet economy using advanced scientific and technological means was integral to Gorbachev's promise. If the Soviet Union was to present an effective counterpart to the "capitalism of the age of electronics and informatics, of computers and robots"--as he put it in his address to the 27th Party Congress--it needed to turn the "acceleration of scientific-technical progress" to its advantage, making the most of the "transformation of consciousness" and the "new psychology" it would bring. (2) This approach implied a number of concrete tasks, among which "securing the computer literacy of students" was "especially urgent." (3) In fact, Gorbachev had pushed through a mass computer literacy campaign in 1985, even before the death of Chernenko.

Andrei Petrovich Ershov, a 53-year-old academician and computer programmer, took command of the project from the very beginning. He was already known throughout the programming community on both sides of the Iron Curtain for his visionary views on the transformative power of mass computing, and he had risen to prominence in the Academy of Sciences partly as a result of his international network of contacts. In the party journal Kommunist, Ershov made a powerful case for the centrality of "informatization" to the perestroika project: the expansion of personal computing, guided and pushed forward by the Soviet educational system, promised not only the "democratization of the information structure of society" but a dramatic society-wide shift toward private initiative at the expense of bureaucracy. Ershov thus proposed a single solution to the twin challenges of the 1980s. Universal computer literacy was to be a worthy successor to the grandest of Soviet enterprises--electrification, collectivization, and industrialization. (4)

By the time the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, the computer literacy campaign had collapsed utterly, squandering widespread initial interest in the subject. Today, the millions of students who once used Ershov's textbooks remember it as a late Soviet absurdity. How did this gifted programmer, whose writings on computer literacy had been widely publicized at home and abroad, fail so completely at turning his ideas into reality? It was not, I argue, merely the unpropitious conditions of an imploding system that led to the reform's collapse. Its origins lay instead in a persistent set of ideals formulated within the post-Stalin scientific community and rearticulated through contemporary debates on cybernetics and the correspondence networks of international computer science. These ideals provided confident, affirmative answers to questions that had become unusually potent as the postwar years made science more massive, popular, and public, in the Soviet Union as well as elsewhere: Could scientific life provide a blueprint for human flourishing? Could science be made to serve moral and social, as well as technical, ends? Much of this heritage--the utopian appeal of science in the public imagination--was shared by the Gorbachev project more broadly; after all, "the acceleration of scientific-technical progress" had been one of the cardinal slogans of the 22nd Party Congress of 1961, long before Gorbachev made uskorenie a keystone of perestroika. …

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